The Poetry of Seaweeds

Josie Iselin wants to show us that what’s happening in the ocean isn’t separate from our lives on land.

JOSIE ISELIN’S ART had always been centered around familiar forms found in nature — rocks, shells, and even sea glass chanced upon at beaches, which she regards as places “of discovery.” But over the past decade, the photographer, author, and book designer’s artistic gaze has narrowed further down to a living form that reigns in the liminal space where ocean meets land — seaweed.

An avid beach-walker, Iselin became intrigued by the bits of washed-up kelp that she kept coming across during her regular rambles along the San Francisco oceanfront. More so when she realized that she could capture some of the incredible beauty of these “seaweed scraps” with her flatbed scanner. (Iselin almost exclusively uses a flatbed scanner and computer to make her imagery — a technique that she says offers her the fluidity “to render and design with three-dimensional objects.”)

“As soon as I realized I could capture the fantastic palette of colors and really strong and diverse forms of seaweed, I wanted to start telling their story because they are so foundationally important to our near-shore oceans, but their story just wasn’t being told,” she says.

Seaweeds, Iselin points out, are algae, not plants, which they are commonly mistaken for. But like plants, they play a crucial role in marine ecosystems, providing nutrients and energy for ocean animals at the bottom of the food chain and up. They also oxygenate waters, store carbon, and are a source of food and income for millions of people across the world.

Exploring the world of marine algae — the slim band of the ocean that stretches from the intertidal zone to about a depth of 300 feet under the ocean surface, where light still penetrates — opened up for Iselin an understanding of and love for a unique realm that she sees as abundant with both life and possibility, but which at the same time is under threat from multiple ecological stressors.

Iselin’s remarkable portraits of individual seaweed species reveal the delicate, almost translucent colors and unusual forms of more than 200 specimens gathered during walks on beaches and field trips along the Pacific Coast and in Maine, and some received from researchers.

Along with her gallery portraits, her two books on seaweeds, An Ocean Garden (2014) and The Curious World of Seaweed (2019), offer an intriguing and informative mix of images and text. In some of the portraits, she has overlaid her scans on top of historical taxonomic images, or cyanotype prints made in her own backyard using seaweed specimens, blending modern and historical image-making styles.

The text that accompanies these portraits in her books offers a rich blend of personal anecdotes, scientific explanations, and natural history lessons, as well as little-known stories about “pioneering women scientists and algal intrigue.”

Iselin has spent a lot of time researching individual seaweed species, poring over scientific reports and talking with marine scientists in order to get “a sense of how to tell the story of a particular species that is specific to a place and time.”

“Seaweed are good for us for many reasons, but my goal was to tell the story from their point of view and create empathy for these organisms,” she says. “We need to help terrestrial people understand that what’s happening in the ocean isn’t separate from our lives.”

Iselin’s masterful blend of art and science might just help us get there.

Learn more about Iselin’s work at josieiselin.com

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